Friday, January 31, 2014

To Enter This Elite Group, Candidates Must First Pass The Testing

The Testing
~The Testing~
The Testing
Book 1
By Joelle Charbonneau
Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

The United Commonwealth reviews the achievements of yearly graduates in all of its eighteen colonies. Top students are brought to Tosu City for testing to attend the University and become future leaders of the Commonwealth.

Question One: What makes an ideal Testing candidate?
Cia Vale, of Five Lakes Colony, is an exemplar of the Commonwealth's ideal candidate: young, determined, and civic-minded, possessing extraordinary mechanical skills and impressive knowledge of the natural world.

Question Two: How does the Commonwealth decide who passes and fails?
The Testing is designed to reward both warriors and peacemakers. Candidates who are unable (or unwilling) to do what is necessary to complete The Testing may be eliminated by their own actions, by the Test itself, or, in some cases, by a rival candidate.

Question Three: Can candidates refuse their nomination?
No. Participation by selected candidates is mandatory and continues until such time as they complete The Testing or are otherwise eliminated.

Question Four: Is The Testing safe?
The United Commonwealth is not at liberty to discuss specific details related to The Testing's various components.

Question Five: Has anyone ever died while participating in The Testing?
Progress comes at a price. The United Commonwealth cannot confirm or deny mortality statistics related to The Testing.

Do You Have What It Takes To Pass The Testing?

It probably seems cliché to compare a YA Dystopian to The Hunger Games, eh? I mean, just because there's an evil government forcing kids to fight kids in a no-holds-barred setting, does that mean it's really okay to slap the label "Hunger Games Clone" on it and call it a day? Well, no, but can you blame me for at least thinking it?

Our narrator and heroine in The Testing is Cia. Cia is smart, athletic, kind, and loyal. Oh, and trusting to a fault. Yep, her trust in others is actually a fault. Makes sense when you think about kids fighting kids. But my biggest problem with Cia was that trust seemed to be her only fault. She always knew the right answer, never was impulsive, waited to break down in a secure location, could run, shoot, climb, dodge, and fix exactly what she needed to. I liked Cia as a person, but with everything going her way all the time, I found myself not worrying about her nearly as much as I felt I should.

Cia is accompanied through most of The Testing by Tomas. For a romantic interest, I found him pretty bland. Tomas is supposed to be handsome, smart, and compassionate. Cia knows this from having grown up with him. Unfortunately the reader is only told this, all the while witnessing his actions repeatedly contradicting Cia's 'knowledge' of him. As such, I didn't find the secrets concerning him all that surprising, nor did I really care one way or the other if he and Cia were together or not.

Any other characters included were only present to further the plot, serve as conflict, or pound home the idea that The Testing is deadly. I understand the need to impress upon the heroine (and reader) the severity of the situation for tension's sake, but I wish it weren't so transparent. I never really got to know the personalities of most anyone past maybe a couple paragraph's description. And the couple that did reveal more either acted like a caricature of a good or bad person. I never felt any humanity from any of them.

Now, I'm usually strictly a character reader. Give me a great character with nothing happening around them and I'm content. Give me a great character in an intriguing setting and I'm enthralled. So given the fairly meh characters, I must have hated this book, right?

Well, actually the setting almost made up for it.

I'll admit that The Testing does have a lot of similar elements as the aforementioned book/series. Girl gets chosen by the government to participate in dangerous competition against other kids her age in order to win a highly coveted position of power and esteem. Only difference here is that death is neither an expected nor foregone conclusion.

This government is sneakier about their evilness. Set in post-apocalyptic America, the United Commonwealth is all about rebuilding the world that the wars and ensuing natural disasters devastated. Thus they entice the best and brightest children to show their stuff in The Testing in order to go to University and make a better society. And so as not to give candidates any unfair advantages, The Testing takes place in complete secrecy, concluding with mind wipes so none of the participants, successful or failed, remember what happened. Passing candidates move on to the University to continue their studies, while those who fail are given jobs in different cities. Which, of course, allows for as much evil as the government cares to accomplish.

Unfortunately, the more plausible execution of their plans doesn't make up for the completely illogical reasoning behind them.

So, in an effort to rebuild your decimated population and restore life to the wasteland, you've gathered the smartest teenaged graduates in the entire nation (over one-hundred this year) and set them to compete for 20 coveted University spots. Why on earth would you have failure result in death? Why would you enable and encourage perfectly preventable suicides, and accidental deaths, and murder? Where is the sense in killing off your second or third smartest citizens? An attempt is made to try and explain the original logic behind this asinine event:
As I eat, he tells me that the Testing process was designed years ago by Dr. Barnes's father, who believed that the Seven Stages of War occurred because world leaders did not have the correct combination of intelligence, ability to perform under pressure, and strength of leadership to lead us out of confrontations. That the only way to ensure the United Commonwealth did not repeat past mistakes was to test the future leaders of our country and make sure they had the breadth of qualities that would not only help our country flourish but keep our people safe. Over the years, several Commonwealth officials have questioned the necessity of such strong penalties for failing The Testing. Some even say that the Testers rig the outcome of the tests so that those who are too smart, too strong, and too dedicated are weeded out. For those are the ones who feel not only compelled to rebuild the Commonwealth but also to question its laws and its choices. Anyone who voices negative opinions about The Testing is either relocated to an outpost or disappears. [pg 144]
I guess I can understand wanting to root out possible bad eggs. Find out which people/kids might be psychopaths and deal with them before they gain power. I can even understand wanting to eliminate possible threats of rebellion by simply disposing of failures instead of letting spurned geniuses gain followings elsewhere. But, gee, you know why people rebel? Maybe because the government is doing stupid, evil things which aren't in the best interest of the people.

Granted, it's not confirmed that absolutely every failure of the tests is killed. But forcing the consumption of possibly poisonous plants, rigging explosives, including potentially deadly booby traps, and sanctioning the candidates to eliminate their competition by any means necessary? It doesn't take a genius to put the pieces together and realize that there are gonna be 80-some intelligent kids dead. And that's 80-some minds that aren't working on the solutions to better the planet.

And yet, despite all of that, I still managed to enjoy this book. What can I say? I like underdog stories, I like plucky heroines, and I like stories with good pacing and tension. And if I'm really being honest, The Testing had all that in spades. I'm also still curious about how exactly this government functions, given the fatal flaws the leadership obviously possesses. We know there are rebels out there, so secrecy can't be the only thing they have going in their favor. So I'll definitely be picking up the next book or two in the series because, despite my better logic, I got hooked.

So, overall I found The Testing to be an exciting start to an interesting series. It's very comparable to The Hunger Games, so if you're not already burnt out on YA Dystopians with romantic subplots, I'd say give this a try. A lot of violence and some mild kissing has me recommending it for high-school and up. While I found the villain a bit illogical and the characters lacking, I will say that if you're looking for an edge-of-your-seat story that values brains over brawn, you may want to check out The Testing.

Approximate Reading Time: 5 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Elizabeth Morton
Length: 11.2 Hours
Listened at 2.3x Speed

I was pretty impressed with the voice work on this recording. Ms. Morton gave a great performance, with a surprising amount of variety between characters. Though some of the voices were similar enough, especially among the boys, the distinction came especially in speech patterns. No two people ever spoke the same, giving immediate recognition even among such a large cast.

Unfortunately, the rest of the production suffered slightly in the editing decisions. While the overall pacing was good, there was a noticeable pause at the end of each individual track. My listening at increased speed made it only a couple seconds of emptiness, but some pauses did stretch longer. I found these to be unwelcome breaks, especially in the middle of high-tension scenes, and I can only imagine how frustrating I would have found them if I'd listened at normal speed.

Still, despite the unwelcome pauses, I would definitely recommend this audiobook to anyone with an interest in listening. Between the stellar voices and the helpful pronunciations (lots of unique names), this recording gave my reading experience a definite boost. Maybe not as exciting or flashy as some productions, but still an enjoyable listen. If the premise appeals to you, check it out.